2016 Election Aftermath - Information Visualization (and uncertainty)

From the New York Times. November 8, 2016.

One chart is burned into my mind from election night.

The chart above — from the New York Times election night coverage — is a gauge chart, a display that information visualization practitioners rail against frequently. This is partly because they waste a lot of space (and more at the Tableau Blog too) If designers choose to represent data with a gauge, they spend a considerable amount of screen real estate to represent a single datapoint. Infovis practitioners and researchers love economy. Edward Tufte calls this the 'chart to junk ratio'... and gauges have a lot of junk.

But the design team at the NYT also chose to "wiggle" the data, using a jitter algorithm that randomly repositioned the needle. Or at least semi-randomly repositions it.

There went all of my finger nails.

But now, in the aftermath of the election, I just got to read the rationale for choosing jitter, which I hadn't considered too deeply, thinking it a cruel trick and not a considered choice. Gregor Aisch wrote up a nice little piece that outlines their thinking. Some highlights:

  • Jitter is good for showing visitors the data is "live" and that any changes would not require a page refresh
  • The jitter had a purpose - it captured the uncertainty of the forecast. As the confidence in the forecast went up, the jitter went down. I recall that the jitter was very pronounced at 8 and 9 PM and shrunk to almost no wiggle by 11 or 11:30 PM. I noticed this on the night of the election, I think. Though it's really subtle and now I'm not sure if I did remember it on election night or I'm just projecting some rationality of my reading of the gauge.
  • The designers added noise to the jitter. Which I'd argue makes it more "fun" and dynamic. You could imagine jitter that just monotonously and smoothly swung between the two end points of the forecast. This part seems more contentious to me, but if your goal is eyeballs glued to the site, then this was a good choice.

'Jibo' Home Robot Launching Soon

Jibo is a domestic robot with a sophisticated set of sensors to interact with family members. Jibo is meant to be a domestic companion, and the creators show him interacting with young kids, adults, and older people too.

But Jibo is immobile. He can't move around on his own — I guess you're supposed to pick him up and move him to different rooms for different tasks. I think the overarching technology is cool (and smartly navigates a lot of constraints), but the idea that a user would unplug something to move it to a new room gives me pause.

Also, no mention of price on the Jibo site. Which is an additional concern of mine. I'm worried he'll be stuck in an uncanny valley between a toy (max price $300) and an important family tool (max price $1000?). I hope there are ongoing ways for the company to monetize beyond the purchase. Maybe they have some kind of payment integration that will let them take a small percentage of the ongoing transactions?

Research Snapshot: Better Negotiations through Social Perspective Taking

Research Snapshot: Better Negotiations through Social Perspective Taking

We all know that negotiation — the act of getting what you want when the other side wants the opposite — breeds anxiety and stress. Negotiating is analytical but also emotional and so requires people to understand their opposition, including their desires and their beliefs about the world. But how can we get that kind of deep understanding? How can we foster empathy on both sides of a negotiation? If we can foster more understanding, will we make negotiations less stressful and more satisfying? Does it improve the outcome?

Researchers at Stanford recently studied how to deepen a person's understanding of an opposing party, and how that affects the anxiety and satisfaction of a negotiation. The researchers created a simulation that worked like a computer game and then staged different interventions to determine the best way to foster "social perspective taking" (SPT), the technical term for viewing a situation from another point of view. See a thorough background on social perspective taking here: (Davis, 1996 - Amazon link).

The authors set up their study to take a piece of canonical negotiating advice — walk a mile in another's shoes — and worked to make that a part of preparing for a negotiation.

Research Snapshot: Measuring Vital Signs from Radio Signals

Research Snapshot: Measuring Vital Signs from Radio Signals

Fadel Adib and his colleagues work in the Wireless Lab at MIT (under Dr. Robert Miller). Most of their research utilizes different radio waves and using their reflection to determine the presence of people in an indoor space. But this year, they produced a much higher resolution — Vital Radio — that records respiration rate and heart rate. This is a huge advance for the internet of things and smart homes. Look ma’ no wires!

"In this paper, we ask whether it’s possible for smart homes to monitor our vital signs remotely – i.e., without requiring any physical contact with our bodies.” People can just relax in their homes — note that the technology used here does require they sit or lie down — as they normally would and the system generates highly accurate respiration rate and heart rate data.

The system is highly accurate, with average accuracy rates over 98%. The researchers used consumer grade chest-strap heart rate monitors as their ‘ground truth’ measurements. And their system can measure these signals at a distance of almost 25 feet (8m)!